In the first episode of The Gentle Touch in April 1980, Maggie Forbes was promoted to detective inspector and, hours later, became a widow when her police constable husband was murdered. It was a symbolic moment for British television: for once, in a police drama, men were getting sidelined and women moving to the front rank.
Jill Gascoine, who has died aged 83, played DI Forbes in the trailblazing series from 1980 to 1984. “The Gentle Touch had been the first telly drama to base itself around a female copper,” she told an interviewer in 2008. “Helen Mirren and Prime Suspect came after me.”
Before The Gentle Touch, 1970s police dramas such as The Sweeney and The Professionals marginalised women so assiduously that they could readily be satirised decades later. Forbes was a new kind of detective. She tackled topical crimes involving prostitution, racism, euthanasia, antisemitism and mental health more empathetically than would have been possible for her predecessors.
“We really should talk, woman to woman ... My name is Maggie,” she told a sex worker in one episode. Forbes struggled not only with institutionalised sexism in the office (personified by her grumpy boss DCI Bill Russell, played by William Marlowe), but as a single mother with a troubled teenage son, Steve. Her heavy load was all too rarely lightened by romantic dalliances.
In The Gentle Touch there were fewer car chases than in traditional shows – possibly because Gascoine could not drive. In scenes on the road, her car was towed behind the camera truck. And such action as there was departed from convention. In one episode a woman, distraught after a breast cancer diagnosis, blew up the fictional Seven Dials police station with hand grenades, injuring Forbes. In another, Forbes went undercover as a sex worker, beating up a hooded assailant who tried to kidnap her.
The Gentle Touch was created by Terence Feely, whose previous writing credits included The Avengers, The Saint and The Persuaders. It was a huge success – one 1982 episode was the fifth most popular programme that year, with more than 18 million viewers, one place higher in the ratings than a programme that carried on as if feminism had never happened, The Benny Hill Show.
But Gascoine was not alone for long in the fight against small-screen sexism. Four months after The Gentle Touch aired on ITV, the BBC replied with Juliet Bravo, scripted by the former Sweeney writer Ian Kennedy Martin and featuring the struggles at a Lancashire police station of Inspector Jean Darblay, played by Stephanie Turner.
The Gentle Touch changed the rules. That said, the writing was not always of the best. The young actor playing the sex worker had the stage name Lynda Marchal and she reckoned she could write more believable dialogue. Encouraged by Gascoine, she went on to do just that: using another pseudonym, Lynda La Plante, she wrote some of the most highly regarded woman-centred television crime drama, including Prime Suspect, first screened in 1991.
As for Gascoine, once The Gentle Touch finished in 1984, she took the lead in another Feely drama, C.A.T.S. Eyes. Its premise was that Forbes had joined Eyes, a private detective agency in Kent, which was a front for an all-woman Home Office team, Covert Activities Thames Section. Gascoine was later disparaging about this sequel: “C.A.T.S. Eyes got a bit silly – Charlie’s Angels in Kent – and I was given a new love interest every week.”
After C.A.T.S. Eyes finished in 1987, she starred with John Thaw in the last series of the ITV sitcom Home to Roost, but she never repeated the ratings triumph of The Gentle Touch. She moved to Los Angeles in the 90s with her second husband, the actor Alfred Molina, and wrote three successful novels.
Gascoine was born in Lambeth, south London, the daughter of Irene (nee Greenwood) and Francis Gascoine. After boarding school, she turned to acting and worked with Ken Loach at the Living theatre, Leicester, in the 60s, and at Dundee rep, where she met her first husband, Bill Keith, a hotelier. But the marriage ended in divorce: she earned £28 a week in Dundee and lived with her two sons in a tiny flat, where her elder boy, Sean, had to sleep in his mother’s bed, while his baby brother, Adam, slept in a drawer.
During the 70s, she became well known for television roles in Z-Cars, General Hospital, Dixon of Dock Green, Softly, Softly: Taskforce and Within These Walls. She also had a regular role in the BBC period drama The Onedin Line as Letty, James Onedin’s second wife.
She met Molina when they starred together in the London production of the musical Destry Rides Again in 1982. “It was a classic showbiz tale,” Molina recalled. “We met doing a musical western at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, the romance developed during the show and we still haven’t closed. Just moved to a bigger theatre.” They married in 1986 and settled in Hollywood. Molina’s career took off while Gascoine’s roles dwindled, though she had parts in TV shows such as Northern Exposure, and did some theatre work in Los Angeles.
She suffered for some years with clinical depression, which she said stemmed from her unhappy times as a child at boarding school. In 1995 she told an interviewer: “I take a low dose of Prozac daily and, thank God, it has evened out my life. It doesn’t take away the feeling of low days, but I just wanted to feel able to deal with day-to-day things. Sometimes it was so bad I couldn’t pick up the phone. It’s terrible, frightening. It’s difficult for anyone to live with you.”
In the second of her three novels, Lillian (1995), the central character has depression. When asked where she got that story from, she replied: “One night I woke up sobbing from a terrible dream. Fred [Molina] told me to get up and write it all down, which is how the book started.”
Her first novel, Addicted (1994), depicted a raunchy affair between a middle-aged woman and her much younger lover of Spanish extraction, which some took to have been inspired by her relationship with Molina, 16 years her junior, whose father was Spanish.
In 2009, it was announced that Gascoine was scheduled to return to British television in EastEnders, playing Glenda Mitchell, mother of Ronnie and Roxy. But on the first day on set the following year, she withdrew saying she felt she “lacked the right experience to film such a big continuing drama”. The role went to Glynis Barber.
In 2013, at a Beverly Hills gala to raise money for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s, Gascoine announced that she had been diagnosed with the disease.
She is survived by Molina, her two sons and her stepdaughter, Rachel.
• Jill Viola Gascoine, actor and writer, born 11 April 1937; died 28 April 2020